In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crime and Justice in South Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • History of Crime and Justice
  • Crime and Security in Transitional Contexts
  • Crime and South African Criminology
  • Crime Trends
  • New Perspectives on Crime, Safety, and Justice

Criminology Crime and Justice in South Africa
Elrena Van der Spuy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0041


Issues relating to crime and justice have come to occupy a central place in post-apartheid South Africa. On the one hand, crime is a source of political division and social discontent. On the other, participation in the criminal economy provides a source of income to many, and social and capital accumulation to some. Much of the national anxiety relates to violent forms of predatory crime. In recent years there has been growing concern about the corrosive effects of economic crime, systematic pilferage, and corruption—both within public and private institutions. There has been no shortage of conversation about the underlying causes of crime or of the most appropriate strategies to contain structural and individual factors that push individuals toward crime. An explosion of alternative sources of crime data and research-based policy have been compiled since the 1990s. Victim crime surveys have brought to light experiences of criminal victimization and trends in reporting, as well as the public perceptions of insecurity and state inefficacy. The search for bold strategic interventions and suitable policy responses continues. Policy has oscillated between punitive law-and-order approaches to more developmentally oriented crime prevention measures. The concern with modernizing and democratizing criminal justice institutions in line with the constitutional imperatives of the rule of law—so characteristic a feature during the first phase of reform—has given way to equally pressing demands for effectiveness and efficacy. Scholarship on crime and justice in South Africa has broadened. Comparative inquiries, for example, have contributed to our understanding of the South African experience. From a comparative point of view, South Africa constitutes one variation on a wider structural theme confronting many transitional democracies in the developing world. Historical analyses continue to remind us of the structural continuities between the old and new South Africa. At a more conceptual level, there have been concerted attempts at theorizing the future of South African access to safety and justice, based on innovative sharing of responsibilities by a wide range of actors around common objectives. Scholarship on the topic has thickened and deepened in ways that are increasingly interdisciplinary, conceptually challenging, and empirically grounded.

General Overviews

Two recent texts (Altbeker 2007, Steinberg 2008) by two widely acclaimed commentators on South African crime and justice provide engaging views into the dilemmas confronting the regulation of social order in democratic South Africa. The analysis of the Mbeki presidency in Pottinger 2008 includes an informative chapter on the politics of crime. The most up-to-date and composite review of crime and safety trends, with detailed references, can be found in South Africa Survey 2009/2010 (South African Institute of Race Relations 2010). Holtmann 2008 captures the way in which the conversations about safety and developmental interventions have evolved over time.

  • Altbeker, Antony. 2007. A country at war with itself: South Africa’s crisis of crime. Johannesburg, South Africa: Jonathan Ball.

    A provocative engagement with popular conceptions concerning the causes of crime, a critique of the state’s response, and an argument in support of rethinking the strategy toward crime. Widely read and much debated.

  • Holtmann, Barbara. 2008. Why law enforcement is not enough: Lessons from the Central Karoo on breaking the cycle of crime and violence. SA Crime Quarterly 23:13–20.

    An innovative discussion on the life cycle of violence in South Africa and recommendations for holistic policy interventions.

  • Pottinger, Brian. 2008. The Mbeki legacy. Cape Town, South Africa: Zebra.

    An authoritative analysis of the Mbeki presidency, with an informative chapter on crime policies.

  • South African Institute of Race Relations. 2010. South Africa Survey 2009/2010. Johannesburg, South Africa: South African Institute of Race Relations.

    A comprehensive review of trends in crime and an overview of key government institutions. Also contains references to major sources. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Steinberg, Jonny. 2008. Thin blue: The unwritten rules of policing in South Africa. Johannesburg, South Africa, and Cape Town, South Africa: Jonathan Ball.

    A well-known South African writer engages with the dilemmas confronting South Africa’s police on the streets, in the absence of a shared social contract.

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